PISM Spotlight: World Premiere of the Movie "Sobibor" in Warsaw
27 APR 2018 Spotlight
On 23 April 2017, the movie Sobibor, directed by Konstantin Khabensky, had its world premiere in Warsaw’s Teatr Dramatyczny. Local premieres will take place soon in Vilnius and Moscow. The film, distributed in dozens of countries, tells the story of the last two weeks of the Sobibor Nazi German Death Camp, during which there was a rebellion and mass escape of prisoners. The narrative of the film presents the events in a manner characteristic of Russian historical policy. The world premiere coincided with a dispute between Poland and Russia regarding the commemoration of events shown in the movie.

On 23 April 2018, the movie Sobibor, directed by Konstantin Khabensky, had its world premiere in Warsaw’s Teatr Dramatyczny. Local premieres will take place soon in Vilnius and Moscow. The film, distributed in dozens of countries, tells the story of the last two weeks of the Sobibor Nazi German Death Camp, during which there was a rebellion and mass escape of prisoners. The narrative of the film presents the events in a manner characteristic of Russian historical policy. The world premiere coincided with a dispute between Poland and Russia regarding the commemoration of events shown in the movie.

Why is their controversy about the location of the world premiere?

The film was not made in Poland nor did it include Polish producers. It was mostly filmed in Lithuania and the film is a Russian production. The organisation of the world premiere in a country that did not participate in the preparation of the finished film (except for Polish actors) is not a widely accepted practice. Stranger still, the movie is aimed at a foreign audience and promoted in cinema markets outside Poland. Reports from the Warsaw premiere were transmitted almost exclusively by Russian media, and the only officially declared reason for it to have been in Warsaw was that the Sobibor camp was operational in occupied Poland.

Does Khabensky’s film faithfully present the historical events?

Like most films, complete adaptation to historical events is not expected, not least for dramatic reasons. Nevertheless, the lack of or emphasis on certain historical aspects is significant, in part because of public perception. The film essentially ignores the leader of the rebellion, a Polish Jew from Żółkiewka, Leon Feldhendler. Instead, it features Jews from the Red Army and mainly the officer Alexander Pechersky rather than those from other countries. People who do not have full knowledge of the events of October 1943 may be view the rebellion based only on the interaction of the Soviet prisoners, the German SS, and the Ukrainian guards. This results in an extremely loose interpretation of history.

What role does the Sobibor revolt play in Russian historical politics?

For many years, Sobibor occupied a marginal place in the Soviet then Russian politics of memory. The symbol of liberation was the camp at Majdanek, then Auschwitz-Birkenau. The rebellion in Sobibor began to be more widely examined only with the increasing emphasis on the tragedy of Soviet Jews in recent years. Pechersky himself was persecuted in the post-war USSR and he was not allowed to participate in Sobibor criminal’s trials in different states. In 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin honoured the officer posthumously with the Order of Valour, following a similar gesture made by Poland in 2014 (Chevalier Cross of Merit of the Republic of Poland, presented to his daughter by the Polish ambassador to Russia). The film Sobibor was also screened at a closed showing with Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 29 January. The leaders then emphasised the communication of the history of Israel and Russia in the context of the uprising in the camp.

Why is the Holocaust so important to Russian memory policy?

Myths related to the role of the Red Army in the liberation of the extermination camps and the fate of Soviet citizens in those camps are used in Russian historical policy in many ways. First, it is an attempt to join the narrative about the Holocaust with an honorary place for Russia as a depositary of this memory. Second, it is an example of Russia’s taking over the memory of other states established after the collapse of the Soviet Union even though most of the victims of the Holocaust who had Soviet citizenship were not Russian. Third, it is used as an element to strengthen relations with Israel by increasing the sense of an historical connection with Russia. Fourth, by suggesting that Poles and Ukrainians were “Hitler’s supporters,” Russia is trying to counter messages about Soviet crimes from the Second World War committed against Poles or Ukrainians.

What is the political controversy about commemorating the victims of the Sobibór Camp and Russia’s participation in similar undertakings?

The International Steering Committee of the project to create a new museum and memorial at the former extermination camp is composed of representatives of Poland, Israel, the Netherlands, and Slovakia. It does not exclude Russia’s participation in projects related to the commemoration of the victims, including during the upcoming anniversary of the rebellion. Nevertheless, Russia was not invited to be on the committee itself and its attempts to join have unanimously been blocked by committee members. Serious controversy also was raised by Russia’s attempts in 1995, 2005, and 2015 to monopolise the memory of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. Russia considers itself one of the main depositaries of the memory of the Holocaust and considers attempts to maintain or restore historical truth as an attempt to re-write and falsify it instead.